True progress, though constantly discussed and pursued, can be difficult to identify. Steven Johnson argues, in his latest book “Future Perfect,” that incremental advancements on various fronts — social, political, economic, technological and cultural — have been made for the past 40 or 50 years. The catch is, people generally underestimate the amount of progress, and they also misunderstand where it came from.
Take the chicken gun, for instance. This obscure invention was designed to test the strength of plane engines. By launching chicken carcasses out of this contraption into a jet engine, early airline engineers were able to gauge the ability of flying planes to withstand incoming birds. Fueled by tax dollars, this machine is still used today to test plane safety. In fact, any American airliner flying legally has passed the chicken gun test.
But why should we care? Johnson points to this example, and many others, as evidence that progress comes incrementally, and not always from the private sector. Magnificent successes and colossal failures tend to garner the most attention. Random luck or individual talent makes for a more interesting explanation than steady improvements brought on by years of collective research and work.
The “Miracle on The Hudson” incident from January 2009 provides a good example of this phenomenon. The US Airways jet that crash-landed in the Hudson River received colossal media coverage because every single passenger survived.
Everything from a “lucky break” to the heroics and talent of the captain were touted as the reason for this fortunate outcome. Johnson points to a much quieter reason for the lack of fatalities: the gradual advancement of public sector innovation like the chicken gun. But slow, incremental progress and government success don’t typically make for great headlines.
Johnson believes that peer networks will drive progress in the coming decades. Peer networks, though similar to the structure of the Internet, are independent of technology. They are “webs of human collaboration and exchange,” and they can be applied to governments, elections, market systems and challenges such as malnutrition.
Peer networks make use of what’s already there — human knowledge, for example — and simply amplify it for greater effect. An inspiring example of this phenomenon occurred in a rural Vietnamese village in the early 1990s. Two married Save the Children staffers were charged with reducing rates of childhood malnutrition there within six months.
Instead of coming in as nutrition experts, ready to hand out energy bars and lecture the locals about what they were doing wrong, Jerry and Monique Sternin spent weeks watching and listening to the villagers. They searched for “positive deviants,” individuals and families who despite their challenging environment, discovered ways to feed their children nutritionally complete meals. The Sternins then encouraged these positive outliers to share their techniques with their peers.
This approach ensured sustainability and, after two years, yielded a 65 to 85 percent decrease in malnutrition in the village. The locals had possessed the secret to healthy living all along. They just needed a little help sharing the technique throughout the community.
Johnson also explores the potential for private-sector improvement through peer networks. In one of the more fascinating chapters, “Conscious Capitalism,” he discusses companies that defy traditional market models. These companies flatten hierarchies and strive for more fair-pay distribution. Within Whole Foods, for example, no employee is allowed to make more than 19 times the wages of the average worker. All salaries are visible to everyone in the company, which makes this equity possible. Just imagine the consequences of employing this technique throughout other large corporations in our country. It’s quite easy to see why corporate leadership would be resistant.
Going even further into true “peer progressive” territory, Johnson presents Silicon Valley companies that have adopted the Employee Owned Business (EOB) model. In these hugely successful companies, shareholders are, essentially, the employees themselves. As Johnson explains: “Most companies today are run by management and owned by some combination of management and outside shareholders who have almost no participation in the day-to-day operation of the firm. An EOB brings that shareholder base inside the organization. When the time comes for important shareholder votes on the future of the firm — electing the board, for instance — it’s the employees who make the decision, not some pension fund or day trader somewhere on the other side of the planet.”
It’s a potentially wonderful model that could completely change the way people take ownership of their work, but it might be slow to catch on outside Silicon Valley. Johnson goes on to breach the possibility of an EOB model within public schools where teachers are driven neither by performance-based compensation nor unions, but instead by the sense of ownership they have in the success of their school. While this idea is interesting, Johnson doesn’t offer any concrete examples of a successful EOB within public schools.
Still, Johnson convincingly makes the case for an increasingly networked world. It makes sense to view the Internet’s formation and structure — distributed clusters of power and information — as one indicator of the direction society is headed. As Johnson suggests, the Internet is not the cause of the shift, but rather one product of a fundamental evolution in our collective consciousness.